Bike town: Hilton Head hopes its pedals earn the medals

A family of tourists crosses Pope Avenue near the Coligny Beach Park traffic circle while a biker holds traffic this summer on Hilton Head Island.
A family of tourists crosses Pope Avenue near the Coligny Beach Park traffic circle while a biker holds traffic this summer on Hilton Head Island. Sarah Welliver

Town of Hilton Head Island and chamber of commerce officials hope to attract more tourists, increase property values and improve public health with a new marketing plan to promote the island as a bicycle-friendly community.

Town staff, bike shop owners, cyclists and representatives from the Greater Island Council and Palmetto Cycling Coalition met Wednesday to decide if Hilton Head is ready to pursue the League of American Bicyclists' certification as a Bicycle Friendly Community.

The league awards communities that provide safe accommodations for cycling and encourage people to bike as a means of transportation and recreation.Communities receive a bronze, silver, gold or platinum rating, depending on how well they score in each of the five categories -- engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation and planning.

Community development director Charles Cousins said town staff feels confident Hilton Head can qualify for a bronze rating and hope for gold soon.

"Getting this designation would serve as an indicator that Hilton Head is a healthy, vibrant community," Cousins said.

Bicycle-friendly communities, like those with good schools and enjoyable downtown areas, contribute to a better quality of life for families, he said.

"We want to be a top retirement community and top tourist destination. This designation would help in that regard," Cousins said.

About 130 communities in the U.S. have received the designation, including Greenville, Spartanburg, Columbia and Charleston.

Jeff Peel, state and local advocacy coordinator for the League of American Bicyclists', said the group has not conducted studies, but has gathered anecdotal evidence from municipal officials who say the designation has attracted more tourists and residents.

The N.C. Department of Transportation conducted a study that showed a 9:1 return on investments made to promote bicycling.

"Hilton Head is probably at that level of return, if not higher," Peel said. "I would love to see every island visitor being able to bike or walk anywhere they need to get and leave the car sit for a week. Hopefully that will mean more money spent in the community and another day's stay."

Hilton Head has more than 50 miles of pathways for use by runners, walkers, skaters and bikers, giving it high marks, Peel said. The town also would be expected to score well when it came to connectivity, road crossings for bicyclists, maintenance of pathways and bike rentals.

However, the town is lacking on-street bike lanes for faster cyclists and biking clubs, according to Frank Babel, founder of the area's Squeaky Wheels Cycling Advocacy Group.

The town's recent focus has been removing bicyclists from the roadway and placing them on multi-purpose pathways. Doing so, though, creates problems for competitive cyclists and those commuting by bike, who are mixed in with slower-moving pedestrians, Babel said.

"The heavy lifting is behind us ... it's time to move forward to get this recognition and focus on some gaps," Babel said. "The town has done a great job of building pathways for recreational cyclists. Now, we need to find the best places for triathletes and destination cyclists."

The town removed labeling from its last on-street bike lane along Pope Avenue from New Orleans Road to Coligny Circle in 2008, when it built off-street pathways along either side of the road. The striping for the lane, however, remains and could still be used as a dedicated bike lane, Cousins said.

Bicyclists also can ride on the shoulder of Marshland Road now that it has been resurfaced.

More also needs to be done to educate drivers about sharing the road with bicyclists and enforce the state's bike laws, Babel said.

Other suggestions from the workshop were:

  • More bike racks.
  • Connect island pathways with Bluffton.
  • Provide bike access to the plantations for the public.
  • Improve and promote safe bike routes to schools, get more helmets on children and train more bike safety instructors.
  • Tell visitors about tourists destinations that can be reached on bike.
  • The next round of applications for the Bicycle Friendly Community designation from the League of American Bicyclists are due Feb. 18.

    Cousins said the town hopes to have its application ready by then.